Colombia arrived in France with a reputation as a gifted yet frustratingly inconsistent side - one that was capable of becoming South American champions yet unable to qualify for the last FIFA World Cup™. Prior to this tournament, the cafeteros had not scored an international goal in over a year, which was hardly the most encouraging statistic. A narrow loss to France, two wins and four energy-giving goals later, Francisco Maturana’s side are safely through to the semi-finals of the FIFA Confederations Cup France 2003. Before the all-important win over Japan, the Colombian coach spoke exclusively to about his side’s chances, the forthcoming South American qualifiers and the silky skills of Giovanni Hernández. Your opinion on the tournament so far?
Francisco Maturana: I think France are organising the tournament very well. The match schedule means physical fitness will have a major role to play. The French have been able to field very different sides and win each time. That means the first eleven will be fit for the semi-final and that is why the French are even hotter favourites than ever to retain the trophy.

And Colombia ?
Colombia are finding their feet. We are building for the future here; this is not our usual side – we have only been able to bring nine established players who are either first or second choice in their position. We’ll see how we get along. We want to restore our image and stay faithful to the South American style of football. We play our quick, short pass toque game, and if our opponents do too then it will be a toque tournament!

What is your aim? To win the trophy or get your squad ready for the qualifiers?
When you take part in a competition you always want to win it, but we must not lose sight of our central objective. Like every other side, ours is the FIFA World Cup. It’s good to win a major competition, like we did at the Copa América 2001 but if you miss out on the big one straight after it’s a national catastrophe. All the previous success is forgotten. Our schedule is quite straightforward: we take part in this tournament, then the Gold Cup. Our aim is to find and test out some players so we are ready when the qualifiers kick off in September.
I’m satisfied so far but I only have 70 % of the team who are likely to take on Brazil in the first qualifier. We hope to find the last pawns at the Gold Cup. So that’s the conundrum we are facing. Having said that, when you are playing in a competition the fans are only interested in one thing: winning.

b>You have said that you are one of the most knowledgeable coaches on the international scene. What made you say that ? ?
In all modesty, as a member of the FIFA Technical Study Group in Korea/Japan 2002, we were undoubtedly the best-informed experts on world football. Why? Because we mixed with the coaches, who considered us as friends, not journalists, as people they could confide in to get stress out of their systems. They opened up to us and showed us what they had done to get where they were. And they did that purely for the pleasure of passing on their knowledge and experience. They talked over their tactics, their team selection, their management skills and the role of their backroom staff. Then they showed us how they put their theories into practice on the pitch. That way we analysed all the teams and scrutinised the latest trends in football. I’m talking about 32 teams here – it would be difficult to find people more in the know than us.

Giovanni Hernández maintains you are the only coach who would’ve picked him. Does that mean a lot to you?
Life is about picking yourself up and starting all over again. I told him I was the oldest person in the squad and had the most international experience. I like the maturity in this current Colombian side and the atmosphere that we have going. Fifteen years ago I was told I was stubborn and too severe because I stood up for what I believed in. And it’s still the same today because I have exactly the same principles as I’ve always had – even more so. Giovanni’s case is just like Carlos Valderrama 15 years ago. Most people wanted Carlos out of the team, they said he was too slow. He was around 26 or 27 at the time, the same age as Hernandez today. I told Giovanni: “If I hadn’t been courageous enough to stand up for what I believed in or if Carlos hadn’t, then he would never have enjoyed the career he did. You have to be true to yourself. I’m going to continue to stand up for what I believe and support you...but you also have to be there for me. If you can do this you’ll become the Valderrama nobody believed in at the time and who everybody adores today.

Are the dates for the qualifying games tough on Colombia?
That’s just the way it is...Nobody has an unfair advantage. If you want to win the fans over, you can’t rely on the luck of the draw. Everybody knows the rules. You have to make the right decisions at the right time and use your brain a little; be smarter than your opponents.